Peter Bart: ‘La La Land,’ Starz Deal Leaves Lionsgate Singing About Future


Some Wall Street players have described Lionsgate as a high wire act compared with the more stolid studios. Going into the fall its stock was wilting, its senior management was shifting and its 12-feature fourth quarter release schedule seemed both overambitious and oddly eclectic.

The wind has now shifted. Shares are up 30% from a month ago, the company has a leading Oscar contender in La La Land and its $4.4 billion acquisition of Starz has closed, underscoring Lionsgate’s growing role as a self-described “content machine.” No one would compare it to Disney in terms of consistency, but Lionsgate has proved itself to be both dynamic and idiosyncratic. And with the reach of Starz’ 32 million subscribers, Lionsgate is in a position to launch some important international initiatives in film and TV.

To a degree, La La Land is an apt entry for Lionsgate. Given its ecstatic reviews and strong limited opening, the movie is both a hit and an enigma. La La Land is basically an indie – a glossy musical indie nurtured by film exec Erik Feig. Management would have been thrilled with a $50 million U.S. gross but, given its ecstatic reviews and a potential shower of awards, its box office fate defies prediction as does its overseas reception. While other studios boast of their dependency on franchises, Lionsgate’s slate shapes up as far more free-ranging. Mark Wahlberg’s Patriots Day from CBS Films is a quality picture, if daring in its subject matter (the Boston Marathon tragedy) but will surely exceed the performance of Lionsgate’s previous Wahlberg film, Deepwater Horizon, which was released and marketed by Lionsgate. Even Lionsgate’s pickups reflect a rare daring – Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge has grossed $63 million to date.

To be sure, Lionsgate in the past has been a victim of its own successes. The Hunger Games party has inevitably ended. Rob Friedman, who shared the production reins first at Summit, then Lionsgate, departed this summer. His partner at Summit, Patrick Wachsberger, proficient at international sales, rules the Lionsgate film side with Feig and Steve Beeks. Some agents argue that Lionsgate still has too many chiefs in both film and TV, but the overall company is in the firm hands of Jon Feltheimer and Michael Burns, who have targeted just under $2 billion on new TV and film content.

On the feature side, Lionsgate seems willing, unlike other majors, to take its chances on off-beat indie-style films, but also is mobilizing what it hopes will turn out to be several franchises. These include Power Rangers (due March 24), two co-ventures with Hasbro toys – Monopoly and My Little Pony, and a fantasy trilogy titled The Kingkiller Chronicle. Lin-Manual Miranda from Hamilton will executive produce this venture, which will emerge as both a feature and a TV series. Two Tyler Perry films also are on the schedule.

But the men who run Lionsgate are dealmakers as much as filmmakers. One of their important stockholders is John Malone, famous for his grand media schemes. Consolidation is very much on the road map of the Hollywood majors, and Lionsgate intends to be a major player in the acquisitions arena. La La Land may sing a happy tune for its stockholders, but there are bigger corporate plans to be orchestrated.

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